The moment I heard an intro to Alix Spiegel’s NPR piece on conversion therapy, my reaction was: “This isn’t going to end well.”
Not because the story wasn’t compelling and interesting. Instead, because these kinds of stories are a “no win” situation, no matter how careful the reporter may be. So, let’s look at the critiques that are rolling in. The first criticism came from Zach Ford at ThinkProgress, the blog run by the progressive Center for American Progress.
A National Public Radio segment this morning suggested that ex-gay therapy is still up for “debate,” misrepresenting it as a “controversy” on which “the jury is still out.” Even though ex-gay therapy is roundly condemned by professional medical organizations as ineffective and harmful, the segment attempted to create a false balance by including stories from both sides of the “debate.” Ex-gay Rich Wyler, founder of People Can Change, had the opportunity to reiterate many untrue ex-gay talking points, including unfounded “causes” for a gay orientation, the misguided notion that it’s ethical to support a patient who wants ex-gay therapy, and a completely inaccurate comparison between ex-gay and transgender patients. Ex-gay survivor Peterson Toscano countered by explaining the traumatic harm he faced in ex-gay therapy, but many of Wyler’s points went unaddressed.
The reality is that there is no debate about ex-gay therapy, and by providing a platform for Wyler to continue propagating the myths about its potential, NPR is contributing to a culture of harm.
At the end of the post, Ford acknowledges he has a radio show with Toscano, one of the subjects of the NPR story.
At Religion DIspatches–a religion website focusing on progressive voices–Warren Throckmorton argues NPR failed to explain how controversial Wyler’s approach to conversion therapy is and failed to delve into that approach which has been rejected by Exodus International.
The NPR report notes Wyler’s self-diagnosis but obscures the methods he uses to treat himself. Rather than a cerebral discussion of family dynamics as portrayed by NPR, JIM promotes skin-to-skin therapy, where men retreat for a weekend with other same-sex attracted men to hold each other for the purpose of establishing closeness to other men. They believe such activity establishes a more platonic bond with men which helps extinguish homosexual attractions.
Also at Religion Dispatches, Candace Chellew-Hodge said the segment suffered because it failed to probe Wyler’s self-interest in being a “professional ex-gay.”
One of the reasons I left the news business nearly ten years ago was because the media’s idea of “balanced” reporting had become increasingly neurotic and, well, unbalanced. Our modern media believes that balance means finding one example of a story it has decided to pursue on one side of the issue, and then find another single example on the other side of the story then simply compare and contrast. Voila! Balance.
That’s what NPR has done in this morning’s report about “reparative therapy” for gay and lesbian people. The report took someone who claims to be “cured” of his homosexuality, Rich Wyler, and juxtaposed his story with that of Peterson Toscano, a man who went through “reparative therapy” and says he was deeply harmed psychologically by the experience.
Overall, the story was heavy on narrative and light on context and facts. I’m not sure that’s a criticism, but just noting that it was radio storytelling at its best in the sense of letting subjects talk with the help of a good reporter. I found Wyler and Tosacano both difficult to listen to because their stories were so sad and painful. The danger in presenting two people who are on opposite sides of an issue is that it can set up the perception that the world is divided 50/50 on an issue, when in fact there is no such 50/50 balance on the effectiveness of conversion therapy with the overwhelming evidence finding it isn’t effective.
I’m sympathetic to the suggestion that Wyler’s own approach to conversion therapy (and self-interest) isn’t properly framed and described, as well as not placed in the context that it is rejected even inside the ex-gay movement. That would have been helpful to the listener.
On the question of whether there is a “debate,” my sense is that criticism is off-base. There is a debate over conversion therapy, but it’s a debate where LGBT activists insist there is no debate and rely on the APA statement while those sympathetic to the idea of conversion therapy and being ex-gay believe the debate is still raging on, the APA statement was more political than science-based, and that the media is cooperating in silencing the debate.
By any definition, that is a “debate.” It may not be an even-sided debate or even a completely honest debate, but it is a debate nonetheless. The story very clearly points out the APA position and even provides a voice for that position. But journalists have a responsibility not to ignore a dispute just because one side says the debate is over. While this piece may have flaws, it is unfair to say it was unbalanced.
I know there is “debate” over this issue, from a journalism perspective, and we are interested in your thoughts.